Google exec says Cuban internet is old and censored

Fresh from a visit to Havana, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has described the Internet in Cuba as “trapped in the 1990s,” heavily censored and with a weak infrastructure dominated by Chinese equipment because of the U.S. trade embargo.

The embargo “makes absolutely no sense to U.S. interests,” Schmidt wrote in a column. “If you wish [Cuba] to modernize the best way to do this is to empower the citizens with smart phones [there are almost none today] and encourage freedom of expression and put information tools into the hands of Cubans directly.”

Schmidt’s column was posted on Google and dated Sunday, shortly after he and three other company executives returned from a brief trip to Cuba, where they met with government officials, blogger Yoani Sánchez and visited the Information Sciences University in Havana.

The trip had “the goal of promoting a free and open Internet,” he wrote, without detailing how the visitors tried to do that in a country where the government controls all access to the Internet and blocks “hostile” pages. “The Internet is heavily censored,” he acknowledged.

“The Internet of Cuba is trapped in the 1990s. About 20-25% of Cubans have phone lines … and the cell phone infrastructure is very thin,” he wrote, adding that only 3-4 percent of Cubans “have access to the Internet in internet cafes and in certain universities.”

Information is passed hand to hand in USB flash drives and other digital memories in “a type of sneakernet,” the column noted, and youths have been assembling mesh networks of Wi-Fi routers for file sharing and private messaging.

Turning to U.S. policies on Cuba, Schmidt wrote that the half-century-old embargo had opened the doors to Chinese equipment. “As U.S. firms cannot operate in Cuba, their Internet is more shaped by Cuban narrow interests than by global and open platforms,” he argued.

The embargo and keeping Cuba on the U.S. State Department’s list of nations that support international terrorism “defy reason,” Schmidt wrote. “There are dozens of countries we call our allies and we are free to travel to that present much worse threats and concerns to the U.S.”

U.S. restrictions “make even less sense when you find out that Cuba imports a great deal of food from the U.S. as compassionate trade. The food imports to Cuba are important but so is importation of tools to Cuba for the development of a knowledge economy,” the Google chief said.

“Walking around [Havana] it’s possible to imagine a new Cuba, perhaps a leader of Latin America education, culture, and business,” he wrote. “Cuba will have to open its political and business economy, and the U.S. will have to overcome our history and open the embargo. Both countries have to do something that is hard to do politically, but it will be worth it.”

Schmidt seemed to be less clear on Cuba’s domestic politics, misspelling the name of Cuban ruler Raúl Castro as “Raoul” and writing that cars and houses, which can be bought and sold relatively freely since 2011, “are beginning to be tradeable with restrictions.”

He wrote that “the two most successful parts of the Revolution, as they call it,” are the free and universal healthcare and “the clear majority of women in the executive and managerial ranks in the country.

“The least successful part of the Revolution has been economic development [not surprisingly] and it appeared to us a drop off in tourism and recent farm issues have made things somewhat worse in Cuba,” Schmidt wrote in his column.

“We were told that there is a fight between more liberal and conservative leaders under Castro, and someone said that the military was becoming more involved in economic development,” he said. “A number of people said the eventual model of Cuba would be more like China or Vietnam than of Venezuela or Mexico.”

Schmidt also wrote that the U.S. terror list also included North Korea, Syria, Iran and “North Sudan.” North Korea was removed from the list in 2008, and there is no North Sudan, just the countries of Sudan and South Sudan.

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